Why Terminology?

How many contracts and negotiations have failed because eventually was translated by the German word eventuell (meaning possibly or perhaps)?
How many expensive mistakes have occurred because someone wrote bit instead of byte in a document? This kind of mistake interferes with communication and results in lost sales and bad investments. Terminology work ensures accuracy.
Terminology work is becoming increasingly important every day:
Burgeoning specialisation and innovation in all subject fields have made it necessary to create special vocabularies (terminologies). Not only do experts have problems talking to laymen – they also have difficulty communicating with each other. This situation applies especially for communication across language and cultural barriers.

Strict product liability laws have increased the need for precise product-related communication. Creative writing – though it may be desirable in general language and literature – is inappropriate here and may prove costly in the long run. Technical communication requires accuracy and precision. This can only be achieved by systematic, concept-oriented terminology work. We know from general language that many frequently-used words may occur in several senses (homonymy), but even technical terms are often ambiguous. Thus charge as a term can denote a number of different concepts in different fields, such as electricity, metallurgy, chemistry, etc.

Another cause of misunderstandings and inaccuracies in communication is the use of several terms for the same concept (synonymy). For example it is not evident to someone unfamiliar with glass-fibre technology that the terms optical wave-guide, light guide and glass fiber denote the same concept. Synonyms may occur where research and development within the same subject field are carried out within different working groups. Standardisation committees have made some contribution towards remedying this situation, but it takes a long time for standardised, unambiguous terms to achieve general acceptance in languages for special purposes. Besides this fact, many terms cannot be standardised. Effective technical communication requires that users clarify the meaning of terms as quickly as possible, and make them accessible to communication partners.

Terminology Work Improves In-House Communication

The best way to improve in-house communication is to form a terminology coordination group. Introducing this measure may involve several options such as using internal or external terminological databases and mainframe, mini- or microcomputer-based terminology management systems.

The terminology coordinating group acts as a clearinghouse to eliminate ambiguous and imprecise usage and promote effective communication between:

  • Research and Development, Production and Marketing
  • in-house personnel
  • the company, its business partners and suppliers
  • the company and its customers

By providing readily comprehensible customer-oriented language, a terminology coordinating group makes a significant contribution to a company’s success.

Terminology Work Supports Technology Transfer

Terminology plays an important role in technology transfer. In many cases it is necessary to overcome language and cultural barriers and a lack of economic and technical development. Some languages may not even possess the vocabulary necessary for technical expression. Here systematic terminology planning is essential. Systematic terminology work requires considerable effort, but the cost of breakdowns in communication and resulting bad decisions can far outstrip the investment in terminology work.

A cost-benefit-analysis of terminology work must be business-oriented and should take into account the fact that systematic terminology work represents one-off-item, whereas unresolved terminological ambiguities can lead to repeated misunderstandings and the recurrence of costly mistakes. The cost-benefit-analysis must also account for the fact that systematic terminology work replaces or includes unplanned terminology work which would be carried out in any case, but is not included in the cost evaluation. A thoroughly researched terminology file in one language provides a firm basis for the creation of a multilingual file. In this way, the expertise of the subject specialist may be combined with the subject and language expertise of the translator, the terminologist and the technical writer. This is the best method to ensure optimal conditions for multilingual in-house communication.

A systematic comparison of terminologies in any two languages will reveal conceptual inconsistencies. In the course of the translation process it becomes essential to confront these problems. For example: The German word Maske used in computer science designates both an input screen display and the filter used to select specific data elements for output. The English word mask, on the other hand, denotes only the output filter. The terms template, screen or form are referred for the input display. German Informatik and English informatics (information science in American English) share some concept characteristics but are not identical. Informatics is equivalent to German Informationswissenschaft, while German Informatik is translated as English computer science.

Successful Terminology Work Requires Cooperation

Terminology is closely linked to the concept structure of the specific subject field. This is why terminology work cannot hope to be successful without cooperation between language experts and subject field specialists. When companies are developing new products or processes, language experts – terminologists, technical writers and translators - should be involved in planning at an early stage, together with experts from the Production Planning, Production and Sales Departments, so as to obtain product-related documentation to satisfy all terminological needs from the outset. Some companies have already adopted this practice. Terminological information should be processed together with subject-specific information to prevent duplication of effort and to supply terms together with their official equivalents in one or more languages. The effort any individual needs to make can be reduced by working together with others (for instance professional associations) and by using existing national and international terminology files.

It is important to initiate this process at an early stage in any project. As the examples above have shown, projects often fail because the partners involved associate different meanings with the terms used. Systematic terminology work can prevent this.